Heretical Distortions

In his recently published book Tonight It’s A World We Bury, Bill Peel undertakes an intriguing study of the characteristics that have made black metal susceptible to far-right politics, while asking whether those same characteristics can also nurture radical, left-wing politics?  We, of course, already know the answer to this question from the musical endeavours of left-wing and anarchist black metal bands such as Ancst, Dawn Ray’d, and Ragana.  The interest lies more in how Peel marshals political and anthropological theory to examine exactly what those characteristics are and how they interact with musical expression.

Rather than the review the book, I thought it might be more interesting to unpack some of the central tenets of its arguments to see how relevant they are to hardcore punk.  I must admit most of the bands that the book examines are pretty alien to me (and some for very good reason), but there is a certain universality that emerges in Peel’s thesis that I feel can be applied more widely to understanding the dynamics of hardcore punk.  I will focus on three specific characteristics identified by Peel.

‘Aggressive, oppositional music is the best tool to express compassion and empathy, because it’s not the language of our culture’ (Dan Yemin, Paint It Black)

The first characteristic is that of ‘Distortion’.  Now Peel isn’t just talking about the sound of distortion, but also of the social impact that distortion achieves, the friction that it introduces.  It is here that he calls upon the political theory of Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe who argue for the importance of conflict and antagonism in our lives – how a politics devoid of conflict allows hegemonies to form and to constrain society through enforced consensus.  As such distortion serves both as a barrier to those who will not engage with it, but also as a home for those who will.  The aim should not be to create a defensive community, but rather one that continually regenerates itself by constructing difference through creativity.

‘To show that things can be different, to take things that are familiar and make them unfamiliar’ (Brian D, Catharsis)

The second characteristic of ‘Heresy’ then comes into focus.  Peel examines the concept in terms of both religion and capitalism, and I think it is helpful to think of it in its broadest possible terms – ideas that are at variance with the established orthodoxy.   Distortion creates space for a musical community to engage in exploring its own heresies that challenge the structural social, economic, and political inequalities that define people’s lived experience.  By doing so, common understanding can be established.

‘The struggle is not over, it assumes new forms’ (War by Other Means, Trial)

The third characteristic is the importance of avoiding the grasp of ‘Death Fetishism’.  This represents Peel’s deliberately macabre reworking of the notion of ‘Left Melancholy’, a concept first delineated by the political theorist Wendy Brown.  She explored Stuart Hall’s writings on the failure of the left to understand and challenge Thatcherism in the UK by examining how feelings and sentiments can sustain attachment to specific ideas and analyses in a way that is both conservative and self-destructive, rendering them ineffective to challenging the new reality.  In other words, hardcore punk cannot simply be angry at social injustice, yearn to start over again; it must continually strive to explore new ideas and understand shifting political contours.

‘The greatest power the capitalist class have over our lives, is convincing us that betraying each other is the only way to survive’ (Inferno, Dawn Ray’d)

Here in the UK, we live in a country that has been governed by a socio-economic orthodoxy that has disparaged the collective, atomised communities, and valorised the private sector above all else for four decades.  The results in respect of levels of poverty, inequality, and degraded public infrastructure are evident for all to see.

Hardcore punk songs will not change this, have not changed this.  But they do serve an important role in creating the means for people to recognise that this is happening, to forge common cause, and to articulate that alternative futures are possible.  And that is a very valuable starting point.


Tonight It’s A World We Bury by Bill Peel is published by Repeater.

The quotes from Brian D and Dan Yemin are taken from Gerfried Ambrosch’s books ‘The Poetry of Punk: The Meaning Behind Punk Rock and Hardcore Lyrics’ (Routledge) and ‘Punk Matters: Interviews with Punk Artists and Activists’ (Active Distribution).  Both well worth checking out.